Brexit and the tightening of border controls are behind a peak in the number of people, including many minors, who attempt the dangerous sea route.
Much of the United Kingdom has reacted with shock at the tragic death of 27 people, including seven women and three children, attempting to cross the English Channel on Wednesday night in the deadliest such incident in years. Even right-wing tabloids expressed disconcert, while blaming France for not stopping the boat from leaving its shores.
The French authorities said most of the victims were Kurds from Iran and Iraq. One of them was a pregnant woman.
The small inflatable boat could have hit a larger one in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, found the sea too rough or simply had been overloaded. Two survivors from Iraq and Somalia are being treated in a French hospital for severe hypothermia, according to reports, while five people have been arrested.
Yet, close observers say the tragedy was preventable and even predictable. In recent months, the short stretch of sea between France and the United Kingdom – only 20 miles (just over 30 kilometres) dividing Dover from Calais – has become virtually the only way for refugees to reach the British Isles.
The number of sea crossings from France to the United Kingdom has risen sharply in the last year, from just over 8,000 in 2020 to more than 23,000 so far this year.
Arrivals usually fizzle out with the onset of winter, but that hasn’t happened this year. Even the day after the tragedy, flimsy boats were reported making their way to England.
“This route is relatively new,” Nando Sigona, a professor of migration and refugee studies at the University of Birmingham, told TRT World.
While arrivals through the English Channel have always been reported, according to Sigona the route rose to prominence gradually during the pandemic as a result of “the almost total closure of every other option.”
While the pandemic reduced air and other traffic, Brexit contributed to increased controls over the circulation of lorries in the Channel Tunnel. With that route much harder to break through, the risky sea passage has emerged as the only viable option.
As Britain withdrew from EU treaties and agreements, in December 2020 it also exited the bloc’s asylum system and the Dublin Regulation, a mechanism to determine the member state responsible for examining an asylum application – usually, the country of first entry into the EU.
This theoretically enabled Britain, an island, to send most asylum seekers back to other European countries.
“On the one hand, there is no longer an infrastructure for sending people back,” Sigona said, “But also, there isn’t really room for people like younger minors to apply for family reunification.”
This appears to be reflected in the latest data on asylum applications to the United Kingdom, published the day after the tragedy: it shows a rise in asylum applications since June 2021, and a significant increase in applications from unaccompanied minors compared to last year.
In Parliament on Thursday, the Labour opposition urged the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to reinstate legal routes to the UK for minors.
Instead, the Conservative government has been pushing through new legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, that would see asylum seekers who have entered the country illegally – including those who cross the Channel – receive a “lower class” refugee status. Rights groups and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) say the bill violates the 1951 refugee convention.
As France and Britain traded blame for the tragedy, Patel insisted she’d offered to work with the French to “do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats.”
In recent months, Patel has insisted that those attempting the dangerous journey are “economic migrants,” facing criticism from refugee rights groups asking her to substantiate her claims. But a study published last week by the Refugee Council highlighted that between January 2020 and May 2021 most of those taking the dangerous journey were in fact refugees from countries like Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Yemen.
“Dangerous journeys take place because the government provides no safe alternative for people to exercise their right to seek asylum here,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director.
“The Afghanistan Citizenship Resettlement Scheme is one example of the Government’s fundamental failure to provide safe routes – a scheme announced in August that has still not opened - ministers cannot even guarantee it will open anytime soon.”
While the government has painted the Channel disaster as the sign of a crisis to be addressed through heightened security measures, most refugees in the world in fact remain in neighbouring countries. Crisis-hit Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria alone. Nearly 100,000 sea arrivals were recorded by the UN in 2021 across Mediterranean routes to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta.
Before Wednesday’s tragedy, 14 people had died crossing the Channel this year, and 1,644 were reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean.
“That border has basically become a hard border now,” Sigona said. “In many ways, we really see now what may be the future in terms of the impact of Brexit on immigration controls.”